Being able to tell a real Gibson Mastertone banjo from a fake can mean the difference between landing a bargain and paying a lot of money for a fake. Gibson made its first Mastertone banjo in 1925, and various models were in production during the pre-war years, which have now become collector's items. If you're looking to get your hands on an antique banjo, learning a few basic tricks about how to identify the real thing can help you get the most from your money.
Check the headstock. While there are exceptions to the rule, the majority of Gibson Mastertone banjos have a black-painted headstock. The headstock is the part of the banjo at the top of the neck, which houses four of the five tuning heads. All headstocks on style 3, 4, 5, Granada, Florentine and Bella Voce Mastertone banjos produced between 1925 and 1929 were in the shape of a violin body.
Examine the fingerboard. The fingerboard on Mastertone banjos was almost always made from Brazilian rosewood. The fingerboard of a Gibson Mastertone should be around 1/8-inch thick. The fingerboard of fakes often measure 3/16-inch.
Look at the inlays. These are more simply called "fret markers," and on Gibson Mastertones should be silvery in colour, almost like aluminium. Any models with a bluish tint on the inlays are likely to be fakes. This is a result of how the counterfeit banjo inlays are set.
Measure the scale length. Scale length is basically the length of the vibrating part of the string. So the measurement is from the nut, which separates the banjo's headstock from the neck, right down to the bridge. The bridge is located on the body of the banjo, and the strings go over it before meeting the body. The scale length of pre-war Gibson Mastertones is generally 26 3/8 inches. This can be different, but if the banjo you are looking at measures differently, this is a sign that it may not be an authentic Mastertone.
Check for serial numbers. On a Gibson Mastertone, there should be a serial number on the resonator near where it meets the neck. The resonator is the circular back-piece of the banjo. The serial number should be on the edge of the resonator. This is indicative of a pre-war Gibson Mastertone. There are also serial numbers on the interior of the resonator and stamped on the interior of the rim.
Look through Earnest Banjo's list of Gibson Mastertone banjos. The banjo models are arranged by year of production, and each one has its own dedicated page, complete with pictures and description. This will give you a good reference point for how Mastertones should look.